At the Dec. 15 Eureka City Council meeting, City Manager Greg Sparks presented research on an idea from Albuquerque, New Mexico: employing panhandlers to participate in city beautification projects. In 2015, Albuquerque put $50,000 toward providing panhandlers with transportation to and from work and a midday meal before then connecting them with services such as food, shelter and counseling. The program is administered through a third-party nonprofit, which relieves the city from obligations such as workman's compensation and drug testing.
Does Eureka need a program like this? Several city councilmembers said yes. Kim Bergel said some days you can't drive down Henderson Street "without seeing seven people or more [panhandling]." Bergel said the idea was a "long time coming." Other city council members cited CostCo and Eureka Natural Foods as hotspots for people flying signs, and Councilmember Natalie Arroyo said business owners are rightfully troubled by people panhandling at the entrances to their stores. (Arroyo does not think an Albuquerque-style program is a solution.) Aren't people panhandling at intersections a safety hazard? Police Chief Andy Mills said it certainly could be, although he couldn't recall any specific cases.
Some cities have banned the act of handing pedestrians things from car windows, but Sparks said this was an ineffective measure. Eureka currently has an ordinance banning "aggressive panhandling," but because several other cities' anti-panhandling ordinances were struck down as civil rights violations, the city was "leery" about enacting one banning the act altogether unless officials were sure it would stick. Albuquerque says it has connected 2,200 people with services since the program began in September. The problem in Eureka falls to finances, education and implementation.
"Albuquerque is the most populous city in the state of New Mexico. Utah is, well Utah is a state, working with a state budget." said Arroyo, referring to Utah's housing-first initiative that dramatically reduced its homeless population. "I think it's a wonderful idea, but I don't think it's going to be our silver bullet. I don't think we can put very much money toward it."
Bergel countered that the money could be covered by grants, but acknowledged enforcement of a stricter panhandling ordinance could be difficult, putting more strain on an already busy police force.
"I don't think that the punitive approach we've been taking is working," she added. She also cited Auburn, Oregon's recent anti-panhandling campaign, in which city officials and business owners handed out anti-panhandling information to people who were shopping. Sparks cited the need for a public awareness campaign, perhaps shown to Rotary clubs or others, that would show people where their money "really" went. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, most panhandlers spend their money on "alcohol, drugs, and tobacco." The report adds that the majority of homeless people do not panhandle, and the majority of panhandlers are not homeless.
Sparks concluded discussion by saying that it appeared the counsel had reached some level of consensus that public education should be a priority, that the punitive aspect of an ordinance should be investigated, and that he would continue to work with third party entities such as The Betty Kwan Chinn Center, which currently does help people find employment. The subject will be revisited at a later meeting.